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Lucio Papirio Dittatore review at Opera House, Buxton – ‘rare revival of Caldara’s opera’

Robert Murray and Rowan Pierce in Lucio Papirio Dittatore at Opera House Buxton-Photo: Genevieve Girling
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Even at a time when Baroque operas are being endlessly revived, the 40 surviving examples by Antonio Caldara haven’t had much of a look-in: Lucio Papirio Dittatore doesn’t appear to have received a production since its 1719 Viennese premiere until now.

This complex tale of individuals striking inflexible attitudes in Ancient Rome is based on the story of the dictator Lucio Papirio, who in 324 BC condemned his master of cavalry Quinto Fabio to death for engaging with the enemy against his wishes and – not coincidentally – winning. That Quinto is his son-in-law complicates matters, but following lengthy breast-beating a happy resolution is ultimately achieved.

Designed by Kitty Callister, Mark Burns’ production pays homage to the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who famously wrapped objects up – including such enormous ones as the Pont Neuf and the Reichstag: thus the relatively limited antique sets and various props are similarly enclosed, while costumes blend ancient and modern.

The placing of the orchestra on stage is more problematic as it occupies space that might more profitably have been used by the singers. Directed from the violin by Adrian Chandler and from the harpsichord by Giulia Nuti, the instrumental ensemble La Serenissima is nevertheless one of the evening’s pluses, while the score certainly contains fine things.

But the singing is uneven, not consistently rising to the level of engagement the piece needs, despite strong dramatic contributions from Robert Murray in the title role, Owen Willetts as Quinto Fabio, and Eleanor Dennis as the military tribune Cominio.

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A rare revival of Caldara’s high-flown opera is hampered by mixed vocals